Freedom of Spirit

You would love Mukul Mangalik. He has cycled along the banks of the Danube, lived in the arms of the Alps and made beautiful films. One of these films, which he co-directed was about a shepherd’s life in which he takes his sheep to a ‘Bughyal’, which is a term used to define a meadow or a grassland in Uttarakhand. I remember the beautiful shots of the mountain range, with stray clouds that seemed like you could reach out and touch them. But Mukul’s favourite scene from the movie was one that had the shepherd sitting on a big rock, surrounded by his herd, singing a folk tune to himself while staring out into the silence of the mountains. He looked at the screen. His face looked tired, the eyes had deep dark circles under them, like they were imitating the valleys of these hills he loved so much. He looked old. Funnily enough, old is not a word I associate with him at his 58 odd years of age. If you had come up to me before now and told me Mukul is old, I would have laughed and called you a fool. Every time our department at the college would hold a seminar, most of the work would shift on to his shoulders. He would call for General Body Meetings for the entire department, professors and students included, because he wanted a democratic approach to how things functioned. But honestly speaking, if Mukul would not push things along, the proceedings would crumble unto themselves. We gladly let him shoulder this burden. Especially us, the ones who would hang out with him, who would discuss ideas with him, who would discuss our lives and problems with him and then find solutions is his words. In true liberal fashion, we would take for granted every freedom that was awarded to us by our department, because people like Mukul had worked for decades to get us that freedom. We would skip our GBMs and not stand for the elections of the post holders. Because somewhere, we thought we would always have this freedom.


It is perhaps this very state of mind that made us unable to see the python slowly surrounding us with its body, that we couldn’t hear its hiss, till it tried to strangle us. But I will come to that later. When I came to Ramjas College in the summer of 2015, I was a young girl with an open mind, but then all of us believe our minds to be open till our limits are tested. I met Mukul straight away, in a way I suppose he was the first person I interacted with in the college. I didn’t know him then. I had never heard of him; I wasn’t part of the intellectual circles my friends came from. Having heard so much about how the ‘intellectuals practice elitism’, I was wary of anybody and everybody who looked at ease in the college. The first thing Mukul asked me was the kind of music I listened to. I think I stared at him in shock for 5 seconds because of the friendly tone he took. I expected a strict professor, who would point out the flaws in my admission papers and ask me to leave and here he was, smiling at me, not a hint of that condescension that I had been warned about! Not even when I told him I came from a small town, from a family who saw the Arts as something that was beneath them. I was in awe of his ability to shrug things off. Although I’m sure he would lose sleep over certain things, I would see him every morning, ready to take his class with the same passion he always had for everything he did, especially for all things related to History. Every discussion I have ever had with him, I remember in perfect clarity. The man commands that kind of an attention, you see. But he would never allow his students to follow him blindly. He would encourage us to question him, to never worship him with a kind of fascination students often develop for charismatic teachers.


I, like many of his other students, would write him e-mails. These mails were on various topics, ranging from asking help to just ranting about the injustices of society. He would always find time to reply. I remember a time when I wrote him a mail accusing him of cancelling one of our meetings where he was supposed to teach me how to make coffee. I was taking up a part time job at a café as a barista, a job that he used to do before me, but had been unable to take out time due to an increased workload. Coffee was another one of his passions and he was very particular about the process involved in making a perfect cup. He e-mailed me later that day, perfectly apologetic, and informed me about the demise of a family member and that he had to leave for his home town and thus was unable to meet me. Needless to say, I was needled by guilt till much later. He did later teach me how to make coffee. And when I served my first perfect ‘affogato’, with the handle of the cup to the side and the spoon placed perfectly, I saw in his eyes the pride I have only seen in the eyes of either parents or teachers. I have never believed in myself as Mukul has believed in me. There was a time when I was contemplating if I wanted to study History. I felt I did not possess the skill set required. One morning he met me in college and I expressed this concern. Having read certain questions regarding the theories of fascism that I had mailed him last night, he looked at me in astonishment and said, “Any doubt that anyone might have regarding your ability to study History would put itself to rest as soon as they read the questions you asked me in that e-mail. You have an ability to question and analyse, and that is what the discipline of History requires.”


Mukul would tell us things the history of things that we always looked at as having popped into existence suddenly. The history of language for example. Words that we took for granted. For example, ‘Beeda uthana’, or taking responsibility as we call it came from the act of holding a ‘Paan ka beeda’ which was symbolic of being an elite in Awadh and thus having certain responsibilities. I have seen him sway to the tunes of Qawwals and Bauls in our cultural evenings and seen him listening in rapt attention to lectures of historians in our seminars. I have never seem freedom of spirit the way I have seen it in Mukul Mangalik, a great professor and a better friend, not just to me, but to most of the students he has taught. Even students who disliked him for this very freedom. He would always encourage them to talk. He would try to engage them in conversation and he would tell us to do the same. He criticised any and all forms of violence. I remember in particular one line that I heard from him very often. “Nahi chahiye khoon, na naaron mein, na sadkon pe, na nadiyon mei… na hum maovadiyon ki taraf hain na rashtravadiyon ki taraf, hum insaniyat ki taraf hain, khoon nahi chahiye.” (We don’t want blood, not in our slogans, not on our streets, not in our rivers… We are neither with the Maoists nor with the hyper-nationalists, we stand on the side of humanity, we want no blood).  Mukul cherished ‘Azaadi’, the freedom to speak, to love, to care, to cry, to sing and dance and above all, the freedom to have a conversation. It is this very freedom that the ABVP has tried to kill in our college. It is the hard work of all the professors in all the universities that they have tried to kill. And for that I will never forgive them, even though I know that at the end of this Mukul will tell me with a smile, “Ama! Jaane bhi do ab.” (Let it go, my friend.)


What happened on the 21st of February was shocking to all of us, but to Mukul, it was devastating. I still remember him standing on a chair trapped in a small room with a mob outside throwing stones at us, trying to calm us down and giving us hope. At the same time I remember with his head bowed down, looking so disappointed it wrenched my heart. I will always remember that image. I vow to never forget it. He later told me he felt betrayed by his own students. The ones who had stood in that mob and screamed at us like wild animals with blood in their eyes. The ones who had called us sluts and in the very same breath had dared to take the name of ‘Bharat Mata’. Why is the nation not angry at them? The level of disrespect that they have caused to my nation is unprecedented. They have dared to insinuate that the nation permits them to hit, molest and beat up innocent students and professors. It is not words you need to save the nation from, it is the sticks and stones of these hyper nationalist goons who think they have the right to give out licences of nationalism. Now that these very goons are trying to witch-hunt him, I’m scared for the life of Mukul, my friend. But I’m also scared for a loss that the nation as a whole might not feel till much later. We will feel it and we will feel it in our bones when these goons will no longer remain just a part of student politics but like their masters will reach positions of power that give them the right to do to the nation what they are doing to us right now. The nation sleeps, and it is that sleep that my words are trying to break. And if I am successful, I hope to see us as a nation stand against this threat that we are facing at the moment.



(Department of History, Ramjas College)

(photo courtesy – HT)